Thursday, December 27, 2018

Wæs hæl! Drinc hæl!

Although synonymous with Christmas, the tradition of wassailing, typically celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously January 5th or 6th), has largely been displaced by carolling.  Both versions share the practice of people going door-to-door and singing, but wassailing also involves offering a drink from the "wassail bowl" in exchange for gifts.

There is another version of wassailing, however, with ancient roots: the custom of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England (chiefly the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire).  This form of wassailing involves incantation and singing, the purpose being to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit the following Autumn.

Whichever version you favour, the word "wassail" seems to be a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale" or, if you prefer, “be in good health”.  In the twelfth century, Danish-speakers inhabiting the Danelaw turned Waes hael, and the reply Drinc hæl, into a drinking formula, a toast widely adopted by the rest of England's population.

So, if over this festive season you wish to go a-wassailing you might consider this Victorian recipe for...

The non-alcoholic nature of this recipe can be upgraded by replacing the apple juice with scrumpy or something similar.

Monday, December 24, 2018

From the Supply Reserve Depot

Success! For some time now, I have been searching for a stoneware jar marked with the letters “SRD” to complement Tastes Of History’s Great War themed history displays.  While many stoneware jars have been found, none had the iconic “SRD” lettering.  Just before Christmas Jill and I visited Victoria Mill Antiques Centre in Congleton, a favourite haunt f\of ours or seeking out period props and kitchenalia.  If I am honest, we went there for lunch as chef Ian Woodhouse serves quite superb food in the Loft Café, but it never hurts to have a nose around.  Within minutes, three stoneware jars were spotted at the back of a shelf but, so used to finding such things, I almost ignored them.  That is until I noticed what looked like black marks on one of the jars facing the wall.  Could it be?  The jar pictured is now part of our kit, but why all the fuss and what do those letters mean?

First World War, and later, period British Army stoneware jars were typically marked with the letters “SRD” which, according to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), stood for “Supply Reserve Depot”.  As usual various internet commentators continue to cast doubt on this meaning, but it is safe to say that the alternatives (see InfoBox), which are all too often quoted, are simply incorrect.

Other, more ironic, interpretations of the initials including: “Seldom Reaches Destination”, “Service Rum Diluted” and “Soon Runs Dry” are simply wonderful examples of soldiers' black humour.  If there remains any doubt on the meaning of “SRD”, then consider that the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War.  Such a pedigree gives the IWM a certain authority on such matters and thus “Supply Reserve Depot” it is.

That containers and crates for other foodstuffs and drinks/liquids were marked “SRD” is completely understandable and consistent with them being distributed to the front through the Army’s logistical supply system.  Indeed, the iconic "SRD" jars, which are usually assumed to have contained only rum, may have held many different liquids or substances.  These stoneware jars were simply the common storage container of the day.  Variations in the shape and glaze colours of surviving examples is most likely the result of mass production by several different potteries.

The association with rum remains valid, however.  Except for Muslim personnel, British and Commonwealth soldiers were given a daily rum ration of 1/16th of a pint, or a quarter-gill, per man per day.  Given such a small amount, frontline soldiers would find it difficult to get intoxicated on the standard issue ration alone so stories of troops going into battle in an alcoholic stupor are most likely unfounded.  That said, some sources mention the run ration being doled out more frequently, especially when attacks were imminent or if heavy casualties increased the availability of rum.  Typically, however, the ration was issued once per morning at the daily “stand-to” when, just before dawn, soldiers would man their forward trench positions in preparation to counter an enemy attack.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Ever wondered where Christmas comes from?  After all we have been celebrating a mid-winter festival for millennia.  According to the latest research, even the monumental Neolithic structure known as Stonehenge, completed ca. 2,500 BC, seems geared towards worshipping the setting of the sun at the mid-winter solstice.

From the Neolithic through to the Romans, people have been marking the lengthening of the days post the solstice.  Ensuring that the sun (and by extension, Spring) returned each year might be thought essential for any farming community reliant of the seasons and the cycle of life.  At the darkest point of the year, therefore, when people were increasingly dependent on the stored harvest and hoping they will have sufficient stocks to get through the winter, a celebratory festival would be good for morale.  Combine that with some form of religious observance aimed at placating the sun, or the relevant god or goddess, or whatever, seems eminently sensible.

Step forward Pope Julius I, Bishop of Rome from February 6th, AD 337 to his death on April 12th, AD 352 who found an expedient way to settle a question that had divided Christendom: when was Jesus born?

Throughout the Roman world, and especially in Rome, the great celebration was Saturnalia or, by the 4th century AD, "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" (birth day of the Unconquered Sun).  The former lasted several days and culminated in the "Brumalia" on December 25th.  The later was also celebrated on  the same day following the dedication of a new temple to Sol by the Emperor Aurelian on December 25th, AD 274.  The longevity and immense popularity of this ancient festival, in fact the major celebration of the year for many people, caused some consternation for the early Christian church.  It just could not stop people enjoying the old rituals.

Pope Julius I thus found himself head of a faith at the heart of which was the resurrection, the defeat of death, by the adult Jesus - and this took place at Easter!  How then to wean the "faithful" off celebrating the old ways at mid-winter and follow the church's teachings?

The early Christians lacked a story of the divine birth of their principal actor, and had actively avoided celebrating the birth of Christ for fear it would mark him "a mere earthly king" (as the early Christian theologian, Origen, wrote ca. AD 245).  Pope Julius' response was to simply superimpose a Christian festival on the "pagan" one. In AD 350, the worship of one sun god was neatly replaced with another at precisely the same time of year, marking December 25th as the birth date of Jesus,  and much of the ancient paraphernalia and ritual was adopted.  Expropriation of the ancient mid-winter solstice festival gave birth to the Nativity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Dispelling a Myth: Britain's "Secret Service"

Yet another TV drama refers to Britain's Secret Service, but why?  Britain has not had a "secret service" since the end of the Second World War.  At the time of writing that's 73 years ago!  So, why do journalists, media types, film and TV producers continue to confuse the title with the US agency of the same name.  Perhaps they are simply ignorant, or perhaps they are pandering to a US marketplace, or perhaps they think we Britons are too dim-witted to understand who's who.  Can it be that difficult to separate fact from fiction?  As it turns out, no.  A little open source research quickly finds the publicly available history of these two organisations in their own words.

Since their establishment in 1909 both the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service have had a variety of names, most famously MI5 and MI6, which has often led to confusion about what the Services have been called.  Officially the terms MI5 and MI6 were consigned to history decades ago but their grip on popular culture has been perpetuated by their use by the media and, in the case of MI5, the Security Service itself.

In the early 1900s, the British government was increasingly concerned about the threat to its Empire posed by Germany’s imperial ambitions.  This led to scare stories of German spies and even the Director of Military Operations was convinced that Germany was targeting Britain.  While the rumours proved to be exaggerated, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, reacted to popular concern and ordered the Committee of Imperial Defence to look into the matter.  The Committee established a Secret Service Bureau in July 1909.  It was placed under the nominal supervision of the Directorate of Military Operations (DMO) of the War Office, the predecessor of today's Ministry of Defence.  The branch of the DMO responsible for the Secret Service Bureau was called MO5.

By October 1909 the Bureau was divided into Home and Foreign Sections.  The former was founded by Captain (later Major General) Vernon Kell; the latter was led by Mansfield Cumming, a 50-year-old Royal Navy officer, and inspiration for James Bond's "M".

The Secret Service Bureau was absorbed into the War Office in April 1914 for the duration of the First World War.  Kell’s Home Section became part of section 5 of the Directorate of Military Operations assuming the title MO5(g).  Two and a half years later, in September 1916, MO5(g) was moved to the newly established Directorate of Military Intelligence within the War Office.  It became the fifth branch of the War Office’s Directorate for Military Intelligence, hence the name MI5.  At the start of the First World War MI5 played a central role in the capture of most of Imperial Germany's intelligence agents in the UK.

Following the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914, the Foreign Section worked more closely with Military Intelligence.  Like its counterpart, in 1916 Foreign Section adopted the cover of “MI1(c)”, part of the War Office.  This cover name was just one of many used from its inception and through the Great War. Others included the “Foreign Intelligence Service”, the “Secret Service”, the “Special Intelligence Service” and even “C's organisation”.  Around 1920, the title “the Secret Intelligence Service” (or SIS) was adopted and has remained the official title ever since.

SIS’s sister organisation was renamed as the Defence Security Service in 1929.  Two years later this became the Security Service, the name by which it is still known today.  "MI5" continues to be widely used as a short alternative to the Service’s official name, while the use of “MI6” appears at the start of the Second World War when this abbreviation was adopted as a flag of convenience for the SIS.  It was used extensively throughout the war, especially if an organisational link needed to be made with MI5.  Indeed, by the end of the Second World War, 17 such “MI” branches had been created to perform a variety of functions, but of these only MI5 and SIS (MI6) still exist today.  Officially, however, “MI6” fell into disuse years ago, but many writers and journalists continue to use it to describe the SIS.

Strictly speaking, at no time have either organisation been known as “The Secret Service” despite this term being frequently and erroneously used in TV dramas and films.  The “Secret Service” is very definitely American. Officially called The United States Secret Service (USSS), or more commonly the Secret Service, it is a federal law enforcement agency controlled by the US Department of Homeland Security.  The Secret Service is charged with conducting criminal investigations and protecting the nation's leaders.  Until 2003, it was part of the US Department of the Treasury, as the agency was originally founded to combat the rampant counterfeiting of US currency after the American Civil War.  Over time the agency evolved into the United States' first domestic intelligence and counterintelligence agency.  Many of the it's missions were later taken over by subsequent agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and IRS Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CI).

Today the USSS’ investigative mission continues to safeguard the payment and financial systems of the United States from a wide range of financial and electronic-based crimes.  The agency also has a protective mission to ensure the safety of the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, the President’s and Vice President’s immediate families, former presidents, their spouses, and their minor children under the age of 16, major presidential and vice- presidential candidates and their spouses, and foreign heads of state.  The USSS also provides physical security for the White House Complex, the neighbouring Treasury Department building, the Vice President’s residence, and all foreign diplomatic missions in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Home Front 1918

With this year marking the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Waddesdon Manor we recreated a taste of the Home Front in 1918.  Many of the visitors were surprised to discover that many of the things familiarly associated with World War 2 had been instituted just over two decades earlier.  The first German air raid on London, for example, took place on May 31st, 1915.  A further 50 attacks were made by Zeppelin airships on British cities until higher flying fighter aircraft and incendiary bullets brought these aerial bombers down to earth.

Women at War  On the eve of the war, there was serious domestic unrest in the UK particularly amongst the labour and suffrage movements, and a powerful revolt against imperial rule in Ireland.  At the outbreak of war, however, patriotic feeling spread throughout the whole country, with much of the population rapidly rallying behind the government.  Yet as the war ground on, the significant sacrifices made in the name of defeating the enemy slowly but irrevocably weakened many of the class barriers in Edwardian Britain.  It was a time of great change.

Variously throughout the war, serious shortages of able-bodied men ("manpower") led to women taking on many of the traditional male roles.  Indeed, the Great War is credited by some with drawing women into mainstream employment for the first time.  Prime Minister David Lloyd George was
clear about how important women were:

“It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war.”

The experience of individual women varied greatly, with much depending on locality, age, marital status and occupation.  Many women found work that directly helped the war effort in the munitions factories (as "munitionettes", pictured opposite).  Many more found employment opportunities in the Civil Service and in administrative work, which likewise released men for the front.  Eventually, women could join the armed forces in non-combatant roles, such as nursing and cooking.  By the end of the War some 80,000 women had joined the armed forces in auxiliary roles.  The khaki clad enlistees of The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) could find themselves driving trucks and mending engines, cooking for frontline troops or performing the vital administration and supply work.  By the end of the war there were some 50,000 women serving in the renamed Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps in the war zones of France, Belgium, Italy and Greece.

Women’s Land Army Born  The British government wanted women to get more involved in the production of food and do their part to support the war effort.  One goal was to attract middle-class women to act as models for patriotic engagement in non-traditional duties.  Many farmers were resistant, so the Board of Agriculture set about encouraging farmers to accept women’s help on the farms.  In March 1917, the Women's Land Army was born; not in World War Two as popularly assumed.  By the end of that year there were over 250,000 women working as farm labourers, with 23,000 in the Land Army itself, performing chores such as milking cows and picking fruit.

This development was not without controversy, however.  The uniform of the Women's Land Army of male overalls and trousers sparked debate on the propriety of cross-dressing.  However odd this may seem today, the British government, desperate not to upset the social mores of the time, employed rhetoric to explicitly feminise the new roles with some success.  Pre-war, for example, it was generally accepted that secretaries were men.  Post-war, and in more recent times, secretarial roles are thought, rightly or wrongly, the preserve of women.

Food and Rationing  In line with its wartime "business as usual" policy, the British government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets.  It resisted efforts to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting on the control of essential imports such as sugar, meat and grains.  When changes were introduced, however, they had limited effect.  In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses while lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.

In January 1917, in yet another foretaste of World War Two, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare programme began to sink ships bringing food to Britain.  Aimed at starving the country into surrender, Britain responded by introducing voluntary rationing the following month.  Bread was subsidised from September 1917, with compulsory rationing introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918, as Britain's stores of wheat dropped to just six weeks’ supply.  To assist with rationing, ration books were introduced on July 15th, 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar.

Women's Suffrage  In the spirit of patriotism, the suffragists of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the militant suffragette movement, epitomised by Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), both suspended their
“Votes for Women” campaigns for the duration of the war.  Today we are probably more familiar with the suffragettes as their campaign of "Deeds not Words" epitomises the power of propaganda and the manipulation of the media to maximise the "oxygen of publicity" such groups need to survive and prosper.  Yet the suffragettes were on the verge of becoming a radicalised, extremist terrorist group in 1914.  While it is true that no person was hurt by the WSPU's arson and bombing attacks, one wonders if the war had not intervened, just how long it would have been before someone was killed by their actions.

Today it is still much debated what impact the activities of the suffrage movements, especially the suffragettes, and the Great War had on women's emancipation.  In the aftermath of the war, millions of soldiers returning home were still not entitled to vote, which posed a dilemma for politicians.  How could they be seen to withhold the vote from the very men who had just fought to preserve the British democratic political system.  The Representation of the People Act 1918 attempted to solve the problem.  When, on February 6th, Royal Assent to the Act gave the right to vote to all adult males over 21 years old who were resident householders, it also gave the vote to women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications.  Until recently, the enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers.  It is more likely, however, that granting limited, age-restricted women’s suffrage was a by-product of giving the vote to millions of returning male soldiers rather than a reward for women’s participation in war work, or indeed the suffrage campaigns.  Even so, it would take a further ten years before women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men.

1918 was a significant year.  In the post-war “land fit for heroes” many of the social barriers that had pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain had been irrevocably broken.  In 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote.  A year later the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex.  Yet in the very same year, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices, meant that men should be given priority in employment.  Many women found themselves pushed back into the home, back into caring roles for husbands many bearing the physical and mental scars from the fighting.  The clock could not be turned back entirely, however.  Women had found new independence and had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the Great War would have been unthinkable.  In 1918 women's emancipation had taken its first steps on the long road to today.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

An Elizabethan Pageant

In 1563, Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) granted Kenilworth to her childhood friend and favourite, Robert Dudley, the soon to be Earl of Leicester.  She visited four times during "progresses" through her realm - her visit in the summer of 1575 was the longest she made to any courtier during her reign - and Dudley’s embellishments to the castle and its setting were doubtless intended to impress her.  Pictured opposite is a reconstruction by Peter Urmston for Historic England of what Dudley's castle may have looked like at the time.

Over the bank holiday weekend we took part in English Heritage's celebration of Kenilworth’s Elizabethan heyday as the ultimate party palace with music, falconry displays and a feast of entertainment fit for the Virgin Queen.  Anxious to impress, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, showed off the skills which made him Master of the Royal Horses, but our more modest part was to produce dishes fit a Queen and her subjects alike. Time to party like it's 1575!

Although we often refer to the "Elizabethan period", the Queen was very much a Tudor, and no Tudor meal would be complete without some form of pie.  We duly pre-prepared a "Great Pie" in honour of Her Majesty for visitors to the pageant to sample:

Our homemade Great Pie recipe was not taken from a particular historical source but was inspired by mediaeval and Tudor precedents.  The filling is diced mixed game supplied by The Wild Meat Company based in Woodbridge, Suffolk.  Their mix usually consists of around one third venison, one third pheasant and partridge, and one third a combination of wild duck, pigeon, and rabbit.  Added to a rich gravy, the filling was contained within a hot-water crust for baking.  Such robust pastry had to be used by Tudor cooks to form a pie crust that would hold its shape as they did not use pie tins.

Two further meat dishes were prepared.  The recipe for "Dutch Pudding" was derived from The Court and Kitchen of Mrs Elizabeth Commonly called Joan Cromwell.  It is essentially minced beef mixed with several herbs and spices that is boiled much like one would for a Christmas pudding.  The original recipe states it should be served with mustard, but a fruit sauce - blackberry or red currant - works equally well.

In Tudor England the name collops referred specifically to thick slices of bacon. Just before Lent, with its restrictions on what could and could not be eaten, it was the tradition to use up those foods that would spoil over the period. For the Tudors it soon became the custom for slices of bacon to be fried and served with eggs, usually for breakfast, on Collop Monday. In one way this could be considered the forerunner of today's full English Breakfast. Nevertheless, the leftover bacon fat would be used the following day, Shrove Tuesday, to make pancakes. Our "Scotch Collops" echoes a traditional Scottish dish that uses either mince or thin slices of either beef, lamb or venison. Today Scotch Collops are often served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato. Oddly, having been introduced to Britain around 1588, potatoes were often regarded with suspicion, distaste and even fear. Generally considered unfit for human consumption, they were used only as animal fodder or as sustenance for the starving.

Parsnips have been cultivated and eaten in Europe for thousands of years  For fashionable Tudor tables parsnips might be plain-boiled, then stewed with a variety of flavours often intended to mask their original flavour.  For the Pageant we prepared parsnips in wine vinegar.  Ideally we would have used verjuice, a highly acidic juice made by pressing unripe grapes, crab-apples or other sour fruit.  In the mediaeval and Tudor periods it was widely used as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment, or to deglaze preparations.

To compliment the parsnips, we introduced pickled mushrooms to the Pageant's visitors.  For those who dislike the texture of mushrooms, but brave enough to try them, the pickling in white wine and spices proved something of a surprise.  The combination of flavours makes an interesting addition to any Tudor (or modern) feast.

To complete the presentation, we pre-prepared a Spice Cake inspired by Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook.  Although strictly speaking a Stuart era recipe, the use of so many expensive imported spices in a fruit cake had been popular with aristocratic Tudors to showcase their wealth.

All in all we spent an enjoyable weekend catching up with old friends, meeting some new ones and revelling in the glorious bank holiday sunshine.  We hope you will be inspired to recreate these wonderful recipes to impress your guest at table.

Monday, April 23, 2018

St George's Day

Today marks the 454th birthday of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  As he is famously thought to have been born and died on the same date, so April 23rd is also the 402nd anniversary of his death on St George's Day 1616.

This day was once celebrated with feasts much like those we enjoy at Christmas, but its popularity waned in the 18th century after England's union with Scotland.  Parts of England do still honour George with annual fetes and pageants, perhaps with traditional entertainments like Morris dancing or Punch and Judy shows.  Most will undoubtedly involve dragons of some persuasion, but very few will involve feasting.

Unlike in December, where we dine on roast turkey and Christmas pudding, there do not appear to be any traditional recipes associated with St George's Day.  Undeterred, we set about producing some sweet and some savoury Mediaeval dishes for the visitors to The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to try.  If you would like to recreate these tasty dishes, then here are the recipes:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Daily Bread: Meals in Tudor England

Most people are familiar with the idea of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner (or breakfast, dinner and tea, if you prefer[1]).  In Tudor England, those of means and social status likewise ate three times a day, but this had not always been the case.

Breakfast  For centuries the daily routine of mediaeval monastic life had shaped when people ate.  Breakfast would have been eaten shortly after rising, but not before those who could had attended morning Mass.  With work to be done in the fields and livestock to look after, farmers and country folk would not have had the time for such services, but pious townsfolk, the gentry and their servants often did attend chapel daily.

It is thought the word “breakfast” entered the language in mediaeval England and meant "to break the night's fast".  Breakfast was a small, simple meal generally consisting of cold foods as the cook fires were just being lit as the household was rising.  Leftovers, eggs, butter, bread and small beer commonly formed breakfast.

Dinner  Church services aside, daily life was governed by daylight.  The entire Tudor day was structured differently with most people getting up much earlier and going to bed much earlier than today.  Ordinary working men and women most likely rose at dawn to maximise the available daylight.  By midday labourers would be hungry after toiling in the fields from daybreak.  They would take a short break to eat what was known as a “beever” or “noonshine” usually consisting of bread and cheese.  The farmer would either have his food brought to him as he worked in the field or he would have taken it with him in a bag.  A Tudor craftsman would close his shop and go upstairs to his lodgings, where his wife would have the meal waiting for him, his labourers and apprentices.

Since breakfast was eaten relatively early, those who did not rise early did not eat it.  Unless traveling or hunting, the nobility generally dispensed with breakfast in favour of a hearty mid-day meal.  Thus nobles, gentlemen and merchants would sit down for their main meal, commonly called dinner, around eleven or twelve o’clock.  For the Tudor nobility and gentry, dinner could be the beginning of a round of feasting that might last all day, or it could be a simple and unpretentious repast, depending upon the occasion and the temperament of the diner.

Dinner in a large household might consist of two, or possibly three, courses typically consisting of several different dishes.  Unlike today where all diners expect to get a portion of everything, not every dish would be within reach of every Tudor diner.  Instead guests were expected to select the things they liked best from the nearest "messe", a set of dishes usually containing several bite-sized portions to be shared between 2 to 4 people.

Slow cooked soups and pottages, usually made from beef, oatmeal and peas, were served first accompanied by bread.  Boiled and roasted meats and pies formed the second course.  After the meal, diners in the early Tudor period would have stood and drunk sweet wine and spices while the table was cleared, or "voided".  To avoid the noise and disturbance of clearing away, it became increasingly popular for the top table to withdraw to another room where special luxuries, or banquettes, could be enjoyed.  Today we think of banquets as a full meal, but when banqueting became fashionable in Elizabeth I's reign, the word applied only to a final course of fruit, cakes, biscuits and sticky preserves, all of which featured sugar in varying degrees.

Supper  The final meal, eaten at the end of the working day (between 5 and 8 pm), would be supper.  For the common man, this would often be the most elaborate of the day, though "elaborate" is an inappropriate adjective for the peasant's daily fare.  However, unlike dinner, which would often be eaten in the fields, the evening meal would be eaten at home at the common table.

You are what you eat  The fare eaten at Tudor meals would vary greatly depending upon the wealth and rank of the diners.  The gentry and wealthy townspeople dined upon the more expensive "brown meats" such as beef, venison, mutton and pork.  Although farmers raised the livestock that would become the beef, pork and other expensive meats, they were unlikely to keep much for personal consumption.  Put simply, more money could be made from selling meat to their wealthier patrons.

Consequently, common folk generally ate "white meats", which contained precious little meat and consisted primarily of such things as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, breads and pottages (soups).  This fare might occasionally be supplemented with locally caught fish, rabbits or birds.  The poaching larger game in the forest was still punishable by death, however.

Most meats were prepared by "seething" (boiling).  Since there was no refrigeration to keep food from going bad, meat and fish was generally eaten fairly soon after slaughtering or catching.  Game meats might be aged for a few days or weeks to tenderise them, however.  Smoking, salting or pickling were common practices to preserve food.

Fish days  All classes ate fish, not because it was exceptionally popular with Tudors but because nearly a third of the year was designated “fish days”.  The government mandated an increased number of fasting days to support for the fishing industry as Queen Elizabeth needed experienced sailors to man her navy.  In the words of the Act of 1563, fish days were “for the better maintenance and increase of the Navy…and not for any superstition…(nor) for the saving of the soul of man”.  When the English fleet of 226 ships faced the Spanish Armada in 1588, only 34 belonged to the Queen.  The rest were merchantmen manned by fishermen, Thames watermen and other civilian mariners.

During Lent or the weekly fasting days of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday the law required that fish be consumed, and other meats laid aside.  “Fish”, however, included veal, game and poultry or anything loosely connected with water, for example beaver.

Dining was one of the Tudor's principal amusements.  All social classes loved a feast.  For the common man and woman, feasting was reserved for holidays or weddings, while for the rich, every meal could be a feast.  Even when there was no special occasion, all social classes would put as much food on the table, in as many varieties, as they could afford.  For the rich man, this might mean numerous dishes, some elaborately decorated and intended entirely for show, served according to an elaborate ritual by household servants.  For the common huswif (housewife), this may have meant a daily challenge of trying to make the same old stuff seem new and different.  All but the very poor, however, would bring to the table more than they could eat.  This meant that the leftovers, or "broken meats", particularly in wealthier homes, would feed the household servants or being given as alms to the poor.

[1] A useful guide to which is which can be found at

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Britain's Most Historic Towns: Chester

The first episode of Britain's Most Historic Towns aired yesterday on Channel 4.  We had the pleasure of working alongside the team from IWC Media to produce the Roman dining experience for host, Prof. Alice Roberts, and West Cheshire Museums curator, Liz Montgomery.

Apart from the costumes, we prepared and cooked a selection of Roman dishes taken from "Apicius".  Naturally enough not all the recipes could be showcased, but one turned out to be very well received - prawn balls in hydrogarum.

After some trial and error, mostly to get the prawn balls to hold their shape, the version of the recipe we used for the programme was adapted from Sally Grainger's book "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today"  If you love the idea of creating your own Roman style feast, then we cannot recommend more highly than to follow Sally's lead.  As for the recipe itself, a couple of things to note.  It's best to use fresh king prawns if possible as frozen can contain too much water and this can cause problems getting the balls to bind together.  If this happens, then you may need to add more breadcrumbs.  The prawn paste can be made in a food processor but this risks pureeing the prawns too much which, in turn, means you lose some of the dish's texture.  If possible, to recreate historic recipes, use a pestle and mortar for more authentic Tastes of History:

Britain's Most Historic Towns (Ep 2/6) continues on Channel 4 next Saturday, April 14th, at 8 pm with a look at Viking York.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Tudor Etiquette at Table

Tastes of History recently ran a workshop for the volunteers at Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan townhouse in Conwy, North Wales to teach something of food and dining in the Tudor period.  From the many questions we fielded, it became evident that a précis of the etiquette expected at a wealthy Tudor table would be a valuable tool enabling volunteers to interact confidently with visitors.  We hope, dear reader, that the following paragraphs prove as interesting to a wider audience.

Dressing the Table  No feast could begin without the table being set. In a great hall, the tables and seating would have been arranged in a three-sided "U" shape, with the base of the "U" reserved for the lord, his family and his personal guests.  The tables might have been covered with fine carpet or velvet cloths in the richest households but would be covered with linen.  Very often three layers of linen were used: one cloth would be placed to hang on the diners' side of the table, one might be pleated and hung to cover the outside, and one cloth, often the most decorative, was laid along the top to conceal the table ends.

With the table cloths laid, the "great salt" was placed prominently on the top-table.  Being such a valuable seasoning, the lord, his family and honoured guests were seated "above the salt" while all other, less fêted guests sat below.  Depending on the wealth of the host, other salts and pepper boxes might be set down the tables as required.  The table setting for each diner consisted of a trencher, bread, a napkin and, possibly, a knife and spoon.  For most of the Tudor period, guests would have been expected to bring their own knife and spoon.  If provided, the knife was laid to the right of the trencher, any bread to the left, and the napkin usually folded on top.

Originally a trencher was a flat round of bread used as a plate, upon which the food could be placed to eat.  At the end of the meal, the trencher could be eaten, but was more frequently given as alms to the poor.  By 1585 the trencher had been largely replaced by thick wooden boards or plates, with a central hollow to contain meat and gravy and a smaller hollow in one corner for the diner's own serving of salt.   While middle class homes might have used wood or the more expensive pewter, the very wealthy used pewter for daily use and silverware during feasts.  One of the signs of the economic prosperity of the century was the increased use of pewter across society.  Unlike today, pottery was reserved for serving rather than for eating off.  Any pottery shards found in a Tudor dining context are most likely to be from serving dishes.

Guests Arrive  The strict social order of the Tudor world was reflected in the rigid, formal etiquette of feasting.  Guests were led into the dining chamber in order of precedence to their assigned place.  In a great hall, the most honoured position was to be seated at the right hand of the lord, while the lowliest was at the end of the table or tables to the lord's left.  Remarkably, this arrangement echoes that of the wealthiest Roman dinner parties of more than a 1,000 years before.

Tudor etiquette demanded that hands were washed before a meal.  This might have been done on the way into the hall, at the "ewery board" where a ewer of water, a basin and towel would have been attended by a servant.  Alternatively, servants might bring a ewer and basin to the seated guests for them to wash their hands.  Even the servants, particularly the carver, were expected to be seen to wash their hands.  Nevertheless, the ritual hand-washing in the dining chamber was largely symbolic as guests were expected to have washed thoroughly beforehand.

All men at the table ate with their hats on (unless they went hatless out of deference to a high-ranking member of their dinner party), and every well bred guest had a clean, white napkin on the left shoulder or wrist, upon which soiled fingers or knives could be wiped.  The servants who attended the table were hatless, since they could not remove their hats (their hands being full) and they would not dream of attending upon their betters with their hats on.  Conversation at the table was considered commendable, but riot and clamour was frowned upon.

A highly unusual narrative portrait of Sir Henry Unton (c. 1558-1596), commissioned by his widow, Dorothy née Wroughton (d. 1634) to posthumously commemorate her husband's life, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  Unton is portrayed at the heart of the composition, but surrounding him are scenes from his life and death.  One frame in particular show him presiding over a banquet in which all the men except him are clearly wearing hats.  Moreover, several male diners have a napkin draped over their left shoulder, but at least two of the women seated at table appear to have their napkin in their lap.

Service  With the saying of Grace, the company would begin to eat.  The dishes were brought in and laid in a very precise order on the table; presentation was imperative.  The high table was clearly served first, followed by the rest of the diners.  Dishes requiring carving might be carried to a sideboard arrayed for that purpose.  A feast in a large household might consist of two or three courses, some of which might involve several different dishes.  Unlike today where all diners can expect to get a portion of everything, not every dish would be within reach of every Tudor diner.  Instead guests were expect to pick the things they liked best from the "messe" that was within reach of them.  A messe is a set of dishes usually containing several bite-sized portions to be shared between 2 to 4 people.  The strict social order of Tudor dining meant that the further one was sat from the high table, the fewer dishes would have been in each messe.

In the wealthiest of households, servants would pass from guest to guest allowing each to help themselves from each dish to as much as they liked.  In middle-ranking houses, where if no male servants were available, then women and children of the house would serve the dishes, only sitting down to eat after all the men and guests had taken what they wanted.

For the most part, guests were expected to arrive with their own knife and spoon as the host was not expected to provide them.  The rich would have a beautifully made and adorned knife and spoon (and occasionally a fork) carried in an ornamental case.  The poor man often went about with his spoon in his hat or his pocket, and a knife on his belt.

Forks did exist, but these were generally two-tined and used for carving meat, not for individual dining.  Delicate little forks did become fashionable, however, amongst the highest classes for eating the sweetmeats and candied fruits, or suckets, served at banquet.  Even so, forks were not used at table and did not become popular until much later in the 17th century.

Instead the point of one's knife was used to spear and transfer food from the messe onto the diner's trencher or plate.  Even in wealthy households, fingers were generally used for taking the tasty morsels from trencher to mouth.  A sign of good manners was that one did not return to a dish anything that had been touched.  Fingers, or the knife, would be wiped clean on the diner's napkin as required.

First Course  Slow cooked soups and pottages, usually made from beef, oatmeal and peas, were served first.  It was believed that as they were also wet it prevented them from catching on the bottom of the stomach were the heat of the body was the greatest.  Bread would accompany soups and pottage.  This should be in smaller pieces, not hunks of bread, that could be put into the soup or pottage to soak up the liquid.  Although seen as a strong food, bread was also thought to permit the  “agglutination” of the pottage, that is to help break it down and convert it into juice.  Once consumed the Tudor diner could be confident they had lined their stomach ready for the next course.

Starting at the lowest end of the table and working toward the high table, after each course the serving plates and dishes were removed, together with any broken bread and crumbs.  There might be entertainments, entremets, before the next course began.

Ale or Wine?  Now might be a good time to take a refreshing drink.  Unless under a doctor's orders to do otherwise, diners would drink only alcoholic beverages.  Beer and ale were the most common, but wine in its many forms was very popular among those who could afford it.  Contrary to popular belief, most people had access to clean, fresh water - after all, that is what wells were for.  Yet, water was not something diners imbibed at table if more fitting drink were to hand.  Water was better suited to sustaining thirsty Tudors on a hot day.

Flagons of wine or ale and drinking cups were kept on a cupboard, a table or sideboard on which cups, plates and so on were displayed.  Such vessels were often kept cool in a tub of water.  When the diner wished a drink they would call for a servant to attend with a cup.  After drinking heartily, the diner handed the cup back to the servant, who rinsed it and returned it to the cupboard.

In the later Tudor period individual beakers became evermore popular.  The general population drank from wooden, earthenware or leather cups, while the nobility used pewter for daily use and silver on special occasions.  The extremely rich would have shown their wealth by using expensive glassware.

Second Course  The next course would be meat.  If there were several dishes of meat upon the table, then boiled meat would be eaten first again due to cooking times and the heats of the meats within the stomach.  Subject to more intense heat in its first cooking, roast meats were believed more ready for digestion and so were always the main course and never a starter.

After the meal, or between courses, the rich would often be entertained by musicians, singers, masquers or players.  All social classes would often enliven an evening by dancing and providing their own entertainment.  The Tudors were a musical lot and it would be a dull company indeed that did not contain a sufficient supply of capable (or at least enthusiastic) musicians and singers.

Manners at Table  Throughout the Tudor period 15th century manners were applied.  At court, good manners could, at times, lead to promotion and thus it was important to know how to behave.  Surviving works, like the "Babees Boke" and various "Bokes of Nurture", tell a consistent story of what was expected:
  • Keep your hands and nails clean.
  • Keep your knife clean and sharp.
  • Cut your meat into small pieces and do not hack it into great gobbets.
  • Cut your bread with your knife, and do not tear it in great hunks.
  • Do not overfill a spoon with soup or pottage, and definitely do not spill it on the tablecloth.
  • Do not slurp your soup or pottage.
  • Do not leave your spoon in the communal dish when you are done.
  • Never put meat into the salt cellar. Keeping the salt cellar clean was especially important. Diners were instructed to take a little salt on the tip of clean knife and put it on their food. Spilled, dirty salt would never be put back in the cellar.
  • Do not return chewed bones to the shared central plate.
  • Do not throw your bones on the floor, but put them in a "voiding" bowl.  The popular image of Henry VIII throwing bones over his shoulder, or feeding them to his dogs, would mortify Tudor sensibilities.  Bones were not wasted; they were kept for later use, given to servants or the poor to make stock.
  • Keep the tablecloth as clean as possible.
  • If food is dropped on the floor, pick it up but do not eat it.
  • Empty and wipe your mouth before drinking. (French sources recommend that when you are given a drink, either drink it all or dispose of any that is left. The English sources seem to indicate that it is rude to drink the whole thing.)
  • Do not stuff your mouth, pick your teeth, make rude noises, scratch yourself, blow on your food, spit in the washing basin or across the table, spit up food into your dish, talk with your mouth full, or fall asleep at the table.
  • Do not put your elbows on the table, which was a sensible precaution against an accident when one considers the table was typically a board laid on top of trestles.
  • Do not stroke cats and dogs at the table. Indeed, an order was made that dogs were not allowed in the dining hall in case they stole from the alms tubs or annoyed the guests with their barking and fighting.
Your Health  During the meal, numerous "healths" would be pledged (the term "toast" was not used).  The pledging of healths quite often reached ridiculous extremes, and might continue long after the food had been carried away; ending only after the entire company was too "cup-shot" to continue.  Any meal interspersed with such healths could last for several hours.  The feast would end with everyone washing their hands again and a final saying of Grace.  The servants removed the dishes, the linens, and the boards from the trestles to put the tables away.

Tudor Banqueting  After the meal, diners in the early Tudor periods would have stood and drunk sweet wine and spices while the table was cleared, or "voided".  Interestingly, the "voide" would not be replaced with the more familiar dessert until much later in the 17th century.  In the interim, to avoid the noise and disturbance of clearing away, it became increasingly popular for the top table to withdraw to another room where special luxuries, or banquettes, could be enjoyed.  Today we think of banquets as a full meal, but when banqueting became fashionable in Elizabeth I's reign, the word applied only to a final course of fruit, cakes, biscuits and sticky preserves, all of which featured sugar in varying degrees.  The centrepiece of any sugar banquet would be of decorative marchpane, itself made from sugar, rosewater and almonds.  As mentioned earlier, over time the double-ended fork and spoon combination, known as sucket forks, which were ideal for spearing sticky, sugary delights, gained widespread use.  Nowadays few Britons sit down to a feast (or banquet) without a fork being present.

The Tudor feast was first and foremost a social occasion.  No celebration would be complete without one, and it was the opportunity for Tudors to enjoy that which seems most dear to them: passing time in good company.  Your health!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Who is Apicius?

Connoisseurs of Roman cuisine may be familiar with the recipes of "Apicius".  Indeed, "Apicius" was the inspiration for the Roman recipes in Tastes Of History's recent post "Fast Food or Dinner Party", but just who was he?  Did he really write the first cookbook?  And was he really a skilled Roman cook, the equivalent of today’s celebrity chef?  Probably not, and here’s why.

The collaborative work of Dr Christopher Crocock and Sally Grainger (two good friends of ours) provides probably the strongest argument for placing Apicius in context.  From each's experience, they have employed two mutually supportive approaches.  Firstly, to reveal the true Apicius it would be most helpful to fully understand the Latin text, not just to decipher the author's words but to grasp the underlying objective.  This was where Chris’ precise translation of the original manuscript proved invaluable.  Secondly, armed with the translated text in a more user-friendly form, Sally’s skill as a chef brought the ancient recipes to life.  Experimental archaeology of this sort reveals much about the original purpose of the surviving cookbook.  Working together in this way has led both Chris and Sally to argue that the recipes in "Apicius" were read and used by slave cooks rather than written for, or by, some Roman gourmet.

There are, however, ancient sources identifying a bon viveur called Marcus Gavius Apicius (AD 14-37), who lived in the reign of Emperor Tiberius.  This Apicius was seemingly notorious for being "born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived" - at least according to Pliny (Natural History, 9. 30).  Moreover, the satirist, Seneca, tells us that: "Having spent a fortune of 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, spent all the gifts he had received from the Imperial court, and thus swallowed up his income in lavish hospitality, Apicius found that he had only 10 million sestertii left.  Afraid of dying in relative poverty, he poisoned himself."

Evidently Marcus Gavius Apicius was no cook - and nor should he have been. Cooks in the Roman world were slaves skilled in the art of producing the fine dishes consumed by the wealthy elite - their masters/owners. To the Roman mind it would be completely inappropriate for the producer and consumer to be one and the same. Thus there are good reasons to suspect that Marcus Gavius Apicius was not the author of the eponymous cookbook.

Moreover, the translation and analysis of the original text by Chris Grocock makes it abundantly clear that the Latin used is vulgar in the literal sense: of the street and the work-place. As a member of the educated Roman elite, Marcus Gavius Apicius should have been ashamed of the style and grammar used. Furthermore, literary works on food focused very much on the origins and qualities of the ingredients rather than preparation of the dish. The “Apicius” texts appear unconcerned with the source, characteristics or indeed any general information on the ingredients used, something an educated Roman, especially a gourmet, would find wholly unsatisfactory.

The absence of an author’s voice is also telling. Had the work been by a single hand, one would expect to “hear” a consistent style, but this is absent. Similarly, had the work been a collection of the writings of different cooks, then one might expect to hear their individual voices. Yet the cooks’ voices are missing, as is that of an obvious compiler. It is most likely, therefore, that the series of books grew from an original collection into its final form having been assembled by an indifferent scribe, with all the inconsistencies and copying errors, rather than a particular compiler. It seems most likely that Apicius was not a Roman author, but rather a convenient name by which we can refer to a surviving practical cookbook for use by kitchen slaves.

Endnote:  The personal pronoun "he" is used throughout simply because "Apicius" is the masculine form of a Roman name.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Home Front Rations

Although World War II began in September 1939, it was not until January 8th, 1940 that rationing in Britain began.  It was not new idea but one that had its origins in the First World War.  This time around, however, rationing would affect everyone.  Bacon, butter and sugar were the first foods rationed, with successive schemes for meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk and canned and dried fruit quickly following.  By August 1942, almost all foods apart from vegetables and bread were rationed.

With the variety of food restricted, people became quite inventive by necessity.  Many, for example, grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful digging for victory motivational campaign instigated by the Ministry of Food.  

There are so many recipes from wartime Britain available on-line or in books that we have had to be highly selective of those we have reproduced.  And in keeping with "Dig for Victory" theme, potato based dishes feature quite prominently.  After all, as one Ministry of Food leaflet stated: "There is no vegetable more useful than the homely potato.  Potatoes are a cheap source of energy, and they are one of the foods that help to protect us from illness."   So, we hope you will be inspired to cook some of these amazing Tastes Of History...

For more information on wartime Britain's Home Front, on rationing or for alternative recipes, please get in touch.